When New Orleans Saints scouts interviewed college defensive backs in advance of the draft, they'd always be sure to ask which receivers they found toughest to cover.
Brandin Cooks' name kept coming up, further confirming the Saints' flattering evaluation of the blazing-fast, prolific receiver from Oregon State.
"It was pretty apparent he was one of those guys," Payton said.
The Saints made Cooks their first-round selection on Thursday night, trading up from the 27th overall slot to the 20th to get him. The deal sent the Saints' first round pick, as well as their third-rounder — 91st overall — to the Arizona Cardinals.
Cooks caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, when he won the Biletnikoff award as the top receiver in the nation.
At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, Cooks is not big, but he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. And it wasn't just his talent and his measurable skills that compelled New Orleans to trade up to snag him, coach Sean Payton said.
"One thing about him that stood out is he's a tough player both physically and mentally," Payton said. "He's been very consistent, very durable. Obviously, he runs well.
"His interview was fantastic," Payton added. "A lot of intangibles besides just his skill set as a player that were really exciting."
The Saints also got a good sense of Cooks from Oregon State coach Mike Riley, an Oregon native and longtime friend of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, Payton said.
Payton also often preaches the need for player to be unselfish, and on that front has to like what Cooks did when he received $100,000 from Adidas for running the fastest time of all receivers at the combine. He bought a car — for this mother.
"She needed one," Cooks said. "She was driving around a 1999 Saturn. I wasn't going to have that anymore. She's driving a Mercedes."
Now Cooks joins one of the NFL's elite passing attacks, led by record-setting quarterback Drew Brees.
Cooks said he was eager to run routes for "a potential future Hall of Famer" in Brees, adding that "the beauty about him is he gets the ball to all of his players, all of his receivers, the tight ends, his backs. Going to an offense like that as a rookie, you've got to be excited."
The Saints ranked second in the NFL in passing last year, averaging 307.4 yards per game. But this offseason, New Orleans released receiver Lance Moore (37 catches, 457 yards, two TDs) and traded speedy running back Darren Sproles, who was also a receiving threat, catching 71 passes out of the backfield or from in the slot for 604 yards and two touchdowns.
Sproles also returned kickoffs and punts.
For those reasons, Payton said the Saints had identified an elite, versatile receiver who can be a deep threat, as well as a potential return man, as "a need" in this draft.
"We just saw this guy as a real good fit," Payton said. "In this case he filled a need. ... He does give us a (deep) threat and he's a guy that can be used in a lot of ways."
Cooks said he believes he and Sproles "do have the same skill sets, but obviously I'm a receiver and he was more in the backfield catching screens."
Cooks said Payton told him he would line up in the slot and out wide, and have chances to return kicks and punts, giving him opportunities to make plays from a wide range of spots on the field.
"That's my game," Cooks said. "So I can't complain about that."
Cooks never visited New Orleans for an individual workout, and said he's eager get acquainted with the Big Easy. He said he'd soon be calling Riley, a former Saints assistant coach under Jim Haslett, for some advice.
"The first thing I'm going to ask him is, 'Where will I go eat?'" he said.
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